The past few weeks have provided a full calendar of seemingly disparate appointments and activities. The Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (SCGLR) hosted five screenings in four counties of the ground-breaking documentary, Brain Matters, about the critical nature of the early years of life on brain development, including a panel discussion at each screening led by Kathryn Shea of The Florida Center for Early Childhood. SCGLR also participated in Attendance Data Deep-dive meetings at 15 Elementary Schools in our region focused on reducing chronic absenteeism; the book circle I am a part of, centered on Rich Harwood’s Stepping Forward, met twice; SCGLR presented a session at the Florida Department of Education’s Educational Strategies and Student Engagement Institute (Essei) in Orlando; and at a luncheon, we shared outcome data with some of the summer providers who excelled during the 2019 Suncoast Summer Reading Challenge.
A colleague commented to me, “Wow, with so much going on, you must be really good at compartmentalization.” I’m not sure that’s the case. Actually, these different appointments, tasks, and activities seem to synthesize, leading to common learnings and themes.
For instance, the documentary Brain Matters emphasizes the importance of serve and return interactions in shaping brain architecture. When a baby or young child makes a sound, gestures, or fusses and cries, and an adult responds with eye contact, words, or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened. This back-and-forth interaction is capacity-building. As we build relationships, we are building stronger brains. During the panel-discussions for Brain Matters, you could feel a growing sense of hope in the room as people shared their thoughts and experiences and expressed their common aspirations for the children in our region.
When applied to the Attendance Deep Dive meetings, the concept of serve and return takes on additional resonance and meaning. The Attendance Teams in each of the participating schools are actively pursuing effective ways of delivering messages about the importance of attendance (serving), while at the same time, they are seeking further understanding of the challenges and barriers families and students encounter in achieving outstanding attendance (return). This self-reflection and dedication to building relationships will build the capacity of each school system.
This concept also informed my participation in the Stepping Forward book circle. The tagline of Stepping Forward is, “A new and inspiring blueprint to rediscover what we share in common and build upon it.” The act of connecting and sharing our thoughts and feelings (serve and return) has taken a room of strangers and strengthened us into a group. As we get to know each other through our conversations and interactions, I can feel the sense of belonging and purpose grow exponentially.
While attending the Educational Strategies & Student Engagement Institute conference, I was struck by how many of the offered sessions focused on the importance of relationships. A strong case was made that struggling students and families “need to know that you care, before they care what you know.” Several sessions offered, including the one led by SCGLR, spoke about the need to deeply listen to the families we are most trying to reach. The effectiveness of flyers, policies, programs, and letters pale in comparison with real relationships with people who care.
The importance of relationships and serve and return interactions in strengthening systems was also felt during the Outcomes Luncheon for the Suncoast Summer Reading Challenge. When SCGLR first presented the Reading Challenge three years ago, 27 Summer Providers volunteered to try to get the children attending their summer programs to read at least six books throughout the summer. These 2017 Summer Reading Challenge pioneers engaged in a continuous loop of feedback with SCGLR engagement team members, sharing what was working and any difficulties they were experiencing in implementing the Summer Reading Challenge.
We know, “Change happens at the speed of trust,” and these exchanges between SCGLR and summer providers strengthened relationships and trust, propelling change. Their willingness to share their successes AND their challenges led to several significant changes in the next year’s Reading Challenge, including additional training opportunities for direct-line staff, opportunities to share implementation ideas with other providers, and increased logistical support from SCGLR. These same feedback loops were in place before the summer of 2019, and as you can see from the chart below, the Suncoast Summer Reading Challenge as continued to grow and strengthen.